Sunday, April 27, 2014

Logically Necessary God

A branch of of Christian theology, mostly comprised of evangelical theologians and those who follow their work, seeks to justify belief in god through logical, rational, and empirical/historical means instead of emotional, dogmatic, or inspirational arguments. They approach the problem using a methodology introduced during the middle ages in western Europe called "Scholasticism". Scholasticism was an amalgam of Greek philosophy (mostly Aristotle, reintroduced into Europe from Moslem courts in Spain), writings from the church fathers (such as Augustine), accumulated church dogma and tradition, and the bible. These Scholastic philosophers brought the powerful new (to them) tool of deductive logic to bear on scripture. Using it, they were able to reach some interesting conclusions, such as deciding whether or not people has sexual relations in heaven, will hair and nails continue growing after the resurrection, and whether bigamy is removed by baptism.

Modern Christian philosophy has inherited many of the original arguments devised by the early Scholastics, but have moved on to less silly problems - primarily around the existence of god, and less about whether an angel can move from point A to point B without passing through the intervening space or whether angels know more in the morning or the evening (no kidding - these were real areas of theological debate). Still in use are arguments put forward by Christian apologists from this era (Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and others). But this framework has been extended by modern religious scholars (C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Richard Swinburne). Universities around the world (mostly from the USA, but also some in the UK) are staffed with philosophers of religion who, in the last few decades, have updated the old arguments and attempted to buttress weaknesses identified in them. They have introduced new arguments and resurrected old, out of vogue ones, altering them slightly to make them more relevant to the modern era. Starting with the desired conclusion (god exists), they work backwards to construct defenses to support it.

This is quite a different approach than the one Francis Bacon, another intellectual from later during this same era advised. His method, the prototype of the scientific method, begins with observation, as free as possible from personal biases and preconceptions, or "Idols of the Mind", as he called them (of course, a complete lack of presuppositions is not possible, and arguably even not desirable). Then one should propose hypotheses to explain those observations, eliminate those that fail to adequately account for the observations, and conduct "crucial" experiments to decide among the very best of the proposed explanations. That is not the approach the Scholastics took. Their commitment to faith before anything necessarily biased the outcome of their investigations. Saint Anselm's motto was “faith seeking understanding”, and I think that this describes the investigative approach taken by the Christian philosophers of that time, and of the modern day Christians who follow them. They begin with faith, and follow with rational justification for the faith.

Aquinas's Argument from Design (which is basically the same as Paley's "A watch requires a watchmaker") is a favorite. Also popular is the modern "Fine Tuning Argument", which only could have come into existence after science discovered the seemingly fine-tuned universal constants that are required to support intelligent life. The Kalam Cosmological Argument (an old Islamic concept repopularized by Craig in the 1970's) is also frequently cited by apologists. The Discovery Institute's fully refuted and simplistic "Irreducible Complexity" argument is an attempt to disprove the possibility of the Theory (and fact) of Evolution. Plantinga puts forth a very complex and well-developed form of Foundationalism where he establishes belief in god as a foundational "properly basic belief" that can be accepted without proof (much as we accept the existence of other minds, the external universe, and the past without deductive proof). Plantinga has also joined the fight against secularism with a response to the very powerful "problem of evil". Briefly, his response is "It is possible that God, even being omnipotent, could not create a world with free creatures who never choose evil. Furthermore, it is possible that God, even being omnibenevolent, would desire to create a world which contains evil if moral goodness requires free moral creatures."

Through their many convergent philosophical efforts, they are attempting to achieve the gold standard of epistimology - the establishment of Christianity as a "justified true belief". This is a belief that has three properties: Christians believe it, it is true, and they have good "warrant" or justification for believing it. There are many beliefs that do not achieve this high bar. For example, I might believe that the field next to me contains a herd of sheep. In fact, it turns out that these are not sheep I see, but are a pack of Bedlington terriers (that I think look like sheep). This would not be a justified true belief, because it is not true. But let's then assume that behind the terriers is a flock of sheep. So, then it is true that the field contains sheep. So, I believe there are sheep in the field, and it turns out there are. But it is not a justified belief, because I believe it for the wrong reasons (I mistook the dogs for sheep). So it still lacks the status of a justified true belief. It could only achieve that if I believe that what I saw were sheep, and they actually turned out to be sheep. Christians seeking to demonstrate the logical necessity of god are striving for this level of epistemological certainty.

The modern theistic emphasis on rational approaches to support a belief in god is, to some extent, a response to the the secular "evidentialist" objection to that belief. In short, non-believers do not think there is sufficient evidence to justify a belief in god, or what evidence is presented is ambigous and unconvincing. The secular, evidentialist argument against such a belief is:

  • It is irrational to believe in god without sufficient evidence.
  • There is not sufficient evidence.
  • Therefore, belief in God is irrational.
This does not disprove the existence of god, but does show that it is not rational to believe that god does exist. Some theists are OK with the all of the premises (that it is irrational to believe and that there is no real evidence). Yet, they believe. Fideism does not require evidence, proof, or rationality - they consciously have faith in the absence of evidence and do not seek it out. Kierkegaard accepted that belief was irrational, and celebrated this fact. He saw it as virtuous if one could make a "leap of faith" to believe. Many believers accept the first premise, but not the second one - the lack of evidence. Instead, they see evidence in every direction they look - in nature, in apparent design, in morality, in consciousness, etc. Here there exists a difference of opinion as to what constitutes good evidence. Theists see god, and secularists see natural processes. Suffice it to say the evidence is ambigous. Reformed epistemologists (like Alvin Plantinga) deny the first premise — namely, that belief in God is irrational unless supported by sufficient evidence. He and his followers argue that requiring a standard of evidence for belief is too strict. For them, religious faith in god is a justified foundational belief (an axiom) that can be accepted without proof. His examples of similar unproven (but rational) beliefs, mentioned above, include belief in other minds, an external world, and the past.

Continuing their pursuit of rational justification, Christian apologists have borrowed from Western philosophers Hume and Peirce the concept of "inference to the best explanation" to put forth their Christian god as the best explanation for the universe we live in. However, they leave off the second and very important part in the process of identifying causes - they stop at making what they believe to be the best inference and never then produce strong, uncontroversial, supporting evidence for the inference. It is one thing to infer a cause - but, one must then demonstrate (through evidence) the actual cause. Otherwise, all that has been done is the creation of a hypothesis, not the discovery of the actual cause. The inference is a hypothesis that needs to be tested against reality. For example, if I hear a crash outside my window, I could infer through this technique that a car crash had occurred, or that a meteor had struck, or that a building had collapsed. The "best" explanation is the car crash (they are much more common). However, I need to go outside and find the cause before I can be sure. Further, other observers seeing the same evidence should reach the same conclusion. Apologists cannot do that with god - we are just asked to accept their inference, or the evidence they produce is controversial and not universally accepted as reliable evidence.

This emphasis on evidence is not arbitrary - it is crucial. Hume introduced an important distinction between "relations of ideas" and "matters of fact". Assertions that deal with relations of ideas lend themselves to deductive logic, and are marked by the property that if taken as true, their denial would generate a contradiction. For example, all logically true statements such as "5 + 7 = 12" and "all bachelors are unmarried" are relations of ideas. Relations of ideas are intuitively or demonstrably certain, and a denial of such a proposition implies a contradiction. So, "5 + 7 = 100" would indisputably violate the logical system of mathematics, and "bachelors have multiple wives" would violate the role that bachelors play, where the concept "bachelor" entails the the concept "unmarried". However, denials of matters of fact do not force a contradiction. Denying a statement asserting a matter of fact, such as "it is raining outside" does not generate a contradiction. It is entirely possible that "it is not raining outside". Hume wrote:

"The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible; because it can never imply a contradiction, and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness, as if ever so conformable to reality. We should in vain, therefore, attempt to demonstrate its falsehood. Were it demonstratively false, it would imply a contradiction, and could never be distinctly conceived by the mind."
Christian assertions that "god exists" and "god is responsible for X, Y, or Z" are matters of fact. They assert something about conditions in the world (that god is an entity who has an effect in the world). For Hume, only statements involving relations of ideas can be deduced. Matters of fact require that we gather empirical data to demonstrate whether the matter of fact is or is not true. For example, any assertion about the weather requires that we look outside to determine if it is or is not raining. It cannot be deduced. By the same token, any statement regarding god and what he does and does not do, is a matter of fact. No amount of metaphysical speculation and logical analysis will establish this. God may exist, or god may not exist - either one is conceivable in the mind, and asserting one or the other does not create a contradition, since it is a statement of a matter of fact. Kant echoed this with his distinction between "analytic judgements" (analogous to Hume's relations of ideas) and "synthetic judgements" (analogous to Hume's matters of fact). He showed that no collection of analytic statements (for example about god's necessity) could establish a synthetic conclusion (such as god exists). Hume summarized his frustration with the slippery way that other writers would try to pass off relations of ideas as matters of fact:
"If we take into our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Consign it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."
Although Hume and Kant made these contributions over two centuries ago, their work still stands as relevant and applicable. No other thinkers have come after them and convincingly showed them to be in error on this point. Certainly they have been improved on, extended, and clarified. But the basic difference between logical possibility and factual reality still pertains.

Another technique apologists use it so bring up perceived weaknesses in the naturalistic and/or atheistic world view. They question the assumptions of naturalism, attempting to frame them as arbitrary and without warrant (i.e., lacking philosophical and epistemological justification). They can show that some atheists have not rigorously justified their requirement for evidence of god's existence. They question the requirements of philosophical "Evidentialism", and they point out (quite rightly) that there is no deductive "proof" that obtaining knowledge though induction is a valid epistemological source. Christian presuppositionalists attempt to demonstrate that belief in uniformity of nature, the laws of nature, and the methodologies of science already assume the existence of a Christian god, or that Christianity itself is the basis of modern science, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution (strange claim, considering that the established religious authorities of the time strongly resisted the intellectual advances brought on by these movements, and even still resist claims related to evolution, age of the cosmos and of earth, consciousness, and science's attempts to unravel the mystery of life and origin of the universe). Modern Christian apologetics frequently is less about defending their faith, and more focused on attacking nonbelievers in an effort to paint them as “intellectually dishonest” for not converting. So, they have upped the philosphical ante, and in a war of philosophical attrition, many atheists finally throw up their hands and confess that they either have no passion for this level of philosophical investigation, or they become overwhelmed and exhausted with the complexity of the arguments. I admit that diving into Swinburne and Plantiga, or listening to multi-hour podcast debates on "Is Belief in God Rational?" is tiring and frequently not very interesting.

So, many modern western evangelicals who don't want to accept Christianity purely on faith, who require empirical and philosophical justification, resort to mastering the rational and very intricate apologist arguments for god. One thing to keep in mind is that none of them are able to actually, then, point to that god as an entity in the world that we can all experience directly, as we would any other object or phenomenon that is claimed to exist in or affect the physical world. Physicists may ask us to belief that quarks are the building blocks of matter, and medical doctors expect us to believe that viruses and microbes underlie disease. We can't see any of these these directly, just as we can't see god directly. but there is a very important difference for quarks, microbes, and viruses - there are numerous lines of independent scientific research that all lead to the same conclusion. These multiple lines of evidence all require and support the existence of quarks, microbes, and viruses as the causal agents for the effects that they are theorized to produce. There is no evidence that these do not exist, and other competing explanations for the phenomena that they are responsible for simple do not exist. There is no counter evidence weighing against them, and the theories in which they play a role have been proven out again and again, never failing to be supported. These invisible entities, then, exists as viable and dominant scientific theories (even though they cannot actually be seen by our instruments). Side note - with the advent of electron microscopes, we now can see viruses and microbes, but before that, they fell into the same unfortunate situation as quarks, electrons, magnetic and electric fields, etc as being theoretical entities that could not actually be experienced directly.

God, still after all the philosophical justifications put forward by Christian theologicans, can only be experienced subjectively. There is no scientific or empirical method to produce the entity behind the theoretical concept of god, and there is plenty of counter evidence against god. God, as a theorized entity, does not have the same level of empirical support as other non-visible objects which we have good reason to believe exist (such as quarks, etc). After all the sophisticated philosophizing, we are left with a god who is both a metaphysical and logical possibility, but a factual myth.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Generic Christian

Many Americans like to go to church because they were raised that way. They have always done it, their friends do it, and it is part of their heritage. They like dressing for it, they have friends at church, it has comforting and familiar rituals, it is a good environment for the children, and will (hopefully) teach the kids some good moral values. They look forward to this special type of reconnection with their community, and church is the channel through which it is done. The pastor or other leaders are role models who can be looked up to and emulated. And who knows? Maybe the stuff the pastor is telling his flock is true. Better safe than sorry.

Lots of parents, who themselves didn't used to go to church, will find a "church home" once the kids are born. It is a good way to make contact with other parents in a similar situation. The rituals - the greeting, the sermon, singing, praying, the doxology, taking the collection, listening to the choir, filing in and out of the "nave" (where the people sit to hear the sermon), taking communion, the benediction, etc are all comforting and familiar rituals. Participating in them reinforces social bonds and help the members recommit to their shared world-view. It makes people feel good to participate, and to be with other people who feel the same way.

As to whether this involves a particular view of exactly what the god that is being worshiped is actually like will depend on the individual. This particular "conception of god" is mostly about the social bonds that come with being a member of the "church family". For the most part, members of a church congregation don't try to dissect their belief and think critically about it. They don't analyze it the way they might study a problem at work, where they may, in fact, bring extremely sharp and and focused analytical skills to bear. Their Christianity is a part of their lives where they are allowed to shed that part of their personalities and immerse themselves in something that feels bigger and more expansive than their own small being.

The entire group believes, it feels right to believe, and believing is the key to joining with them and being a member of the in-group. Not believing (or believing the "wrong" way) puts one in the out-group. The actual existential status of the god they worship is not at issue. It is not a question of factual accuracy, and the bible is not picked over as a collection of truth claims that must be evaluated. The goal is the overall experience of membership and belonging, of being part of something that at best will give you eternal life, and at worst will at least make you a better person.

There is another type of generic Christian that might fall into the "spiritual but not religious" camp. They want to do something for their souls, but aren't sure exactly what. Church seems to be what most people do, and so they choose that obvious route. They may have a friend who told them about a church or even invited them to go as guests. Before long, they are regular attendees, going for some vague reason (like, they feel like they probably should be going to church). When asked if they believe it all, they might respond, "well you never know, anything is possible..." and leave it at that. They might not participate in the community, stick around for the refreshments, or really even enjoy or treasure the experience, but continue going because it seems like the right thing to do. They have chosen the easy route to conventional spirituality, the main road available to middle class America. It didn't involve much decision making or self-reflection, and so they keep going. Maybe the church has rock music, extravaganzas, a great sound system, and a fun preacher who can relate current events to bible verses...

Poison for the generic Christian is critical study of the bible and its claims. Bible study is one thing, but people who begin down the path of questioning and doubt, of looking behind the curtain, of investigating the dead ends, inconsistencies, and errors found in the bible are on the road to separation from the group, agnosticism, and/or atheism.

Angels and Demons

A spiritual fad that made its appearance in the 1990s was a fascination with angels. Books, posters, bumper stickers, church sermons, TV shows, plays, and all forms of media highlighted angels interacting with humans, helping them get through life's challenges.

I think there is a difference between those who conceive of these beings as real entities and those who envision them as metaphors and poetic extensions of our best human qualities (and of demons embodying the worst qualities). For those who see them as real, but invisible, beings, I really have no response. If they persist in claiming that they are there but can't be seen, this argument could be made for an infinity of other invisible beings. We don't have the time to argue against all of them, and so won't address any of them.

For those who see angels, along with demons, as figurative, I have more sympathy. As metaphors, they symbolize both the good and the bad in our natures - duty vs. temptation, love vs. hate, generosity vs. greed. Angels represent the sublime, the inspirational, the humanitarian experiences in life. Demons - the opposite - the darker, hateful, mean, and petty. Or as Freud would have it, angels are the superego, and demons are the Id.

People enjoy laughing because it makes them feel good, regardless of whether the topic is funny. They enjoy dancing even when they are terrible dancers. People also enjoy believing in things because those beliefs give them pleasure, regardless of the objective (empirical) factuality of the objects of their beliefs. It is not the correctness of the belief that they value, but the way they feel by believing and by being with others who share those beliefs. Believing in angels is fun and comforting.

For believers, the ontological (existential) status of angels and demons doesn't matter. What matters is the exploration of the experience, the enjoyment of the experience, and if possible, increasing the intensity and frequency of these experiences. Angels can brighten our mood, give hope, and maybe be a friend when we have no others. They help improve our outlook, attitude, mood, and allow us to see things from a more productive and positive perspective. An article by Paul Crume in the Dallas Morning News put it well:

Any adult human being with half sense, and some with more, knows that there are angels. If he has ever spent any period in loneliness, when the senses are forced in upon themselves, he has felt the wind from their beating wings and been overwhelmed with the sudden realization of the endless and gigantic dark that exists outside the little candle flame of human knowledge. He has prayed, not in the sense that he asked for something, but that he yielded himself. Angels live daily at our very elbows, and so do demons, and most men at one time or another in their lives have yielded themselves to both and have lived to rejoice and rue their impulses.

This is poetry, not meant to be a factual recording of a supernatural phenomena. Angels are safe to believe in. They are kind, non-judgmental, and only here to help (like in the movie, It's a Wonderful Life). Demons are easily spotted, playing the melodramatic villain role. In their current incarnations, they straddle the line between New-Age and Christian, which is where many Americans find themselves.

Monday, September 23, 2013

An Empirical Case for Naturalism

This is quoted verbatim from Keith Augustine. I liked it so much I had to repost it. All credit goes to Mr Augustine.

Throughout human history, supernatural causes have been invoked to explain droughts, earthquakes, thunderstorms, comets, the spread of disease, mental illnesses, mystical experiences, the orbits of the planets, the origin of living things, and the origin of the world, among many other phenomena. As the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries flourished, appeals to supernatural causation ultimately gave way to successful scientific explanations of various phenomena in terms of natural causes. Ever since its inception, science has increasingly strengthened the plausibility of naturalism by providing informative accounts of a wide range of phenomena in terms of natural causes. The more science has progressed, the less room there has been for postulating supernatural causes within a scientific account of the world, and if past experience is any guide, the trend will continue well into the future. This trend has led many to conclude that there probably are no genuine instances of supernatural causation. As science explains more of the natural world around us, appeals to supernatural causation become less plausible.

Many philosophers and scientists have concluded that the best explanation for our ability to develop successful scientific explanations for such a wide range of phenomena in terms of natural causes is that there are no genuine instances of supernatural causation. Barbara Forrest, for example, describes naturalism as "a generalization of the cumulative results of scientific inquiry" (Forrest 2000, p. 19). In other words, the best explanation for the success of science is that naturalism is true. Given the proliferation of successful scientific explanations for phenomena, Forrest concludes that there is "an asymptotic decrease in the existential possibility of the supernatural to the point at which it is wholly negligible" (Forrest 2000, p. 25). If naturalism were false, there would be some phenomena that could not be explained solely in terms of natural causes. However, because science can explain all of the uncontroversial phenomena we have encountered in terms of natural causes, there probably are no phenomena which cannot be explained in terms of natural causes. Therefore, naturalism is probably true.

This success of science argument rests on a crucial inductive premise--that we can infer that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes from the ability of science to explain all of the uncontroversial phenomena we have encountered in terms of natural causes. Even if we accept the validity of this inductive inference, we still have to establish that all the uncontroversial phenomena we have encountered so far can be explained scientifically. Since there certainly are uncontroversial phenomena for which we lack successful scientific explanations--consider the prevalent gravitational influence of some unknown form of dark matter in the universe--I will defend a related but stronger argument for naturalism. This argument does not require us to have a successful scientific explanation for all well-established events in order to provide evidential support for naturalism.

A likely candidate for a supernatural event is not necessarily the result of supernatural causation given that meeting the criteria for a likely candidate is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for actually being a supernatural event. Thus, if naturalism is true, it does not necessarily follow that there will be no likely candidates for a supernatural event--it is possible, however unlikely, that a naturally-caused event would also meet the requirements for a likely candidate for a supernatural event. For example, suppose that a subject can induce out-of-body experiences at will in a laboratory setting. During several experimental trials, after this subject has induced an out-of-body experience, infrared cameras capture the outline of a person moving toward a bell which begins to ring in a room adjacent to the location of the subject's normal physical body. If such events occurred today, they would meet all of the criteria for a likely candidate for a supernatural event. Nevertheless, such events might be the result of entirely natural causes which could be understood only in terms of some future science not yet available to us. For example, one might postulate that human organisms possess natural astral bodies made of some unknown form of exotic matter which can detach from normal physical bodies in certain circumstances. In the absence of successful scientific explanations for such phenomena, however, uncontroversial instances of likely candidates for a supernatural event would make supernaturalism more likely to be true than not relative to a background scientific picture lacking natural categories for such events.

Regardless of such possibilities, if there are any events within nature that have supernatural causes, these events will be likely candidates for a supernatural event. Thus, if naturalism is false, there will be events which are likely candidates for a supernatural event. Even without a definitive set of criteria for identifying a supernatural event, we can see the beginnings of an argument for naturalism:
(P1) If naturalism is false then there are events which are likely candidates for a supernatural event.

(P2) There are no events which are likely candidates for a supernatural event.

(C) Therefore, naturalism is not false (i.e. naturalism is true).
Or, to put the argument in another form:
(P1) If there are no events which are likely candidates for a supernatural event then naturalism is true.

(P2) There are no events which are likely candidates for a supernatural event.

(C) Therefore, naturalism is true.
The argument above forms the basic foundation of my defense of naturalism. As stated above, it is too broad to be useful; the crucial second premise simply cannot be established in the absence of omniscience. However, we can modify this argument into a more practical lack of evidence argument:
(P1) If after an intensive search of the natural world scientists and historians have found no uncontroversial evidence for likely candidates for a supernatural event then naturalism is probably true.

(P2) After an intensive search of the natural world scientists and historians have found no uncontroversial evidence for likely candidates for a supernatural event.

(C) Therefore, naturalism is probably true.
The lack of evidence argument assumes that if supernatural causation does occur, prima facie we should have uncontroversial evidence for events which are likely candidates for a supernatural event. There is no reason in principle why the occurrence of such events could not be established conclusively. On the other hand, if supernatural causation does not occur, we should expect to find no uncontroversial evidence for a likely candidate for a supernatural event. If naturalism is true, we will not necessarily fail to find uncontroversial evidence for a likely candidate for a supernatural event. However, we probably will not find such evidence. In other words, if we do find uncontroversial evidence for a likely candidate for a supernatural event, it is more likely than not that supernatural causation does occur and thus that naturalism is false.

Now that I have laid the groundwork for a defense of naturalism based on the lack of uncontroversial evidence for events which would probably have supernatural causes if they occurred, it is time to elaborate upon and defend the premises of the argument. First, since I have already used the crucial phrase without defining it, I want to clarify what I mean by 'uncontroversial evidence'. Uncontroversial evidence is not necessarily replicable experimental evidence, although that would certainly qualify as uncontroversial evidence. By uncontroversial evidence for a proposition I simply mean evidence which would lead any reasonable person to conclude that the proposition is true. For example, we have uncontroversial evidence that slavery was prevalent in 19th century America, that the continents have drifted apart over hundreds of millions of years, that the evolution of species has occurred, and that light is a form of electromagnetic radiation. What these propositions have in common is that they are accepted by a consensus of the experts doing research within the relevant empirical subject matter. Uncontroversial evidence is evidence that generates consensus among the experts in the relevant field.

One might object that science could never falsify naturalism because scientific explanations are never cast in terms of supernatural causes. However, while scientific explanations are inherently naturalistic, scientific discoveries could strongly suggest that an event has occurred which could not plausibly be explained in terms of natural causes. For example, had human beings been the only life to appear on the planet Earth immediately after it was habitable, with no evidence of evolution from previous ancestors and no fossils of extinct species ever found, this would be a scientific discovery which would strongly suggest a supernatural cause of the origin of human beings. Science has undermined the credibility of all forms of supernaturalism not because science assumes that only natural causation occurs as a methodological principle but because science has been successful in using that assumption. There simply are no gaps in our scientific picture of the world which seem to require an appeal to supernatural causes. The simplest and most straightforward explanation for the success of methodological naturalism as a scientific strategy is that metaphysical naturalism is true.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Skeptic's Morality

When I say "morality", I am using this to mean a personal and cultural set of values, codes of conduct, and social mores that distinguish between "right" and "wrong" thoughts, speech, and actions.

I started really thinking through this chapter when recently, a friend repeated a version of the old existential cliché, "I don't believe in any real moral code. I would be a good mass murderer. I could just go out and kill people". First of all, this statement came from one of the most thoughtful and peaceful guys I know. He was trying to make a point, however clumsily, about moral codes. It was basically this: if there is no "absolute" and "objective" moral code, then all morals are relative, which means one moral standard (or lack thereof) is as good as any other. In other words, if we cannot deduce or "prove" a universal morality, and if no god has given us one, then we are allowed to do whatever we want, right? Dostoyevsky's character, Ivan Karamazov said the same thing, "if there is no god, then everything is permitted".

Frequently, that is the first, superficial reaction many people have to their own personal, existential discovery that "god is dead". They think, then, that chaos reigns - the mice will play while the cat's away - we can all just make our own rules, or even have no rules at all. However, just a cursory understanding of what the Existential philosophers, such as Sartre, were trying to accomplish shows exactly the opposite. It is not an argument for anarchy. In their view, because there is no god, and because there are no externally imposed rules we must follow, we (as individuals and communities) have to shoulder the entire responsibility for our actions. We can't share that burden with god. We are free, but with that freedom comes great responsibility. As Eric Fromm wrote, our attempt to "escape from freedom" (existential freedom) is a retreat back to mindless conformity, submission to authority, or self-destructiveness. Fromm urged us instead to accept and embrace our freedom, to live life fully, to choose our moral paths consciously and deliberately, to fulfill ourselves while also helping those with whom we share the world find fulfillment.

Because, in the Existentialist view, there is no a priori good, and because there is no a priori standard for humanity, and because there is no god, we alone must take control of our actions. Sartre's moral imperative was to "Act if and only if in acting you desire that all men do likewise." It was not to climb a bell tower and shoot people just because you can.

But the existential approach is just one of many. I won't use this chapter to try to outline all of the major moral philosophies. There are quite a few, those that address how society should act, how individuals should act in society, and how individuals should lead their own lives. Among these many competing theories, some of which have been around for millenia, no one of them has been "proven" to be the one right one. Morality is not the type of thing that can be deduced as we could derive a mathematical law or be discovered as we might discover a new element or star.

Although a later section will discuss "objective morality", I lean towards morality not being "out there" in the world in the sense of existing independently of us, as does a solid object. It is not a presence that everyone can observe and agree that they all see the same. Although it lacks that kind of objective existence, it is objective, in the sense that it does exist as a personal and cultural activity - people do recognize rules that they call moral laws. It is objective in the sense that morality, across all human cultures, has the same set of fundamental purposes - to strengthen the community, to reduce strife, chaos and lawlessness, to bind the members closely to its history, to promote behaviors that further its goals of prospering and thriving, and of encouraging conformity and unity of purpose from its members. However the implementation of moral choices will differ from society to society. As a species, we generally adopt moral rules that promote individual, family, group, national, or cultural well-being (in varying proportions, from culture to culture). Different groups emphasize different aspects or moral "pillars" (this idea is expanded further below). Examples can be given of acts that are so abhorrent and vile that we would have difficulty believing that they are not "objectively" evil. But a desire for morals to be objective and external to our minds may itself be a human psychological preference that we, particularly in the western world, want to be true. There is no independent "rule" that a fundamental objective moral/ethical framework exist (unless your rulebook is the bible).

Rejection of Radical Moral Relativism

There are, and there have been, many cultures that have engaged or still engage in ritual and sanctioned cannibalism, bestiality, child predation, murder, sacrifice, mutilation, mass killings, honor killings, and torture. In their world, these were not immoral. And in the past, our own societies have embraced behaviors and norms that we, today, judge to be highly immoral (slavery, child abuse, torturing animals for entertainment, cruel and unusual punishments, discrimination, and oppression of minorities, for example). Some actions we perform today (eating animals, allowing poverty and starvation in the 3rd world, polluting the environment, changing the climate, abortion) may be considered immoral in the future. Our ancestors and these other cultures didn't consider themselves to be evil, and they probably had high moral standards in the context of whatever they took to be their moral frameworks. However, it is not improper for us to say that some elements of their moral standards were mistakes. Unless one is a radical moral relativist, which I am not, we cannot sanction wanton abuse of another's autonomy as occurs in torture, rape, murder, and genocide. We cannot sanction the "morally retarded" views of otherwise enlightened leaders like Theodore Roosevelt who thought "the only good Indians are the dead Indians", or Winston Churchill who was on record as strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against "uncivilized tribes". As Steven Pinker wrote:

Though they were surely decent people with perfectly functioning brains, the collective moral sophistication of the culture in which they lived was as primitive by modern standards as their mineral spas and patent medicines are by the medical standards of today ... They never took the mental leap that would have encouraged them to treat the people of other races with the same consideration <as their own>.
It is not out of bounds to say that some cultures (including our own) have had some rather bad ideas in the moral arena, and we should not be ashamed to admit this. We have no qualms about judging other acts of past cultures as mistakes:
  • Dumping raw sewage in the street, as was done before the advent of modern sanitation.
  • Performing surgical procedures in unsanitary conditions, as was done before modern hygienic procedures were invented.
  • Using poisonous lead pipes for plumbing, as did the Romans.
  • Destroying the environment through deforestation and other abuses leading to societal collapse, as the Easter Islanders did.
  • Hunting mammoths, camels, lions, sloths, and other large animals to extinction, as did the prehistoric American Indians.
Assuming that public health, personal health, ecological conservation, and cultural survival are objectively good ideas, these were all objectively bad ideas because they subverted those goals. There is nothing logically inconsistent or invalid with self-destructive health care treatment, poisonous plumbing, cleansing the earth of interesting species, or committing cultural suicide. However, these actions are incompatible with our intrinsic, evolved, self-interest as individuals and as civilizations. Of course, these people didn't know any better. But that still doesn't turn them from bad ideas into good ideas. We can see from our current vantage point that they should have chosen to act differently, and might have done so if they had our resources and knew what we now know. In the same way, because of our access to better information and a wider range of view, we should not shrink from pronouncing some moral ideas as better than others, and some as outright bad ideas. Specifically, several centuries of experience implementing Liberal, Scientific, Democratic, Enlightenment, Age of Reason, Utilitarian ideals in countries around the world has resulted in previously unimagined levels of individual and group rights, opportunities, and achievement of happiness, safety, prosperity, and fulfillment (in those fortunate countries) that puts past generations to shame. Several centuries have clearly shown that new and better ideas in the moral landscape have been discovered. They are better in the same sense that living on clean streets is better than wading in sewage, and avoiding infection is better than losing a limb to gangrene. It is better not to be hung as a witch, better not to be exterminated through genocide, better to not be drawn and quartered for minor crimes. In this sense, some moral choices are objectively better than others.

Still, if we respect the lessons of history, we have no choice but to conclude that morality is human dependent: a set of choices and judgements and preferences that we make as societies and as individuals. We choose to obey these rules - to honor, and even to regard them as sacred and inviolable. We choose for ourselves, and we allow the society to choose for us if we desire to remain members in good standing. We "will" (wish) that these choices be regarded as true, even "absolutely" true. Although it may be uncomfortable to consider this, they are not "absolutely" true, but they seem to work better if we believe that they are.

Types of Moral Systems

Anyone can search through Wikipedia or some other philosophy website and find descriptions of ethical systems, and I recommend doing just that. Other people have done a much better job of defining these than I can or even want to do. The branch of philosophy called "Ethics" deals with moral issues, and "Normative Ethics" deals with what we "ought" to do. For the purposes of this chapter, I will summarize some of the more well known ones very briefly:

  • Virtue ethics emphasizes the role of one's character and the virtues that one's character embodies for determining or evaluating ethical behavior. It is the type of ethical systems recommended by Plato and Aristotle.
  • Deontology judges the morality of an action based on the action's adherence to a rule or rules. It is sometimes described as "duty" or "obligation" or "rule-based" ethics, Kant's "categorical imperitive" was of this type
    • Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.
    • Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.
    Obeying the rules of god (e.g., the Ten Commandments) is yet another form of a deontological moral system, as is Christ's advice to love one another.
  • Consequentialism (of which Utilitarianism is one type) looks at outcomes of actions and judges the rightness or wrongness based on whether the general well being of some target group is enhanced or diminished. From a Consequentialist standpoint, a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence. This view is often expressed as "The ends justify the means".

The difference between these approaches to morality tends to lie more in the way moral dilemmas are approached than in the moral conclusions reached. For example, a Consequentialist may argue that lying is wrong because of the negative consequences produced by lying—though a Consequentialist may admit certain consequences might make lying acceptable. A deontologist might argue that lying is always wrong, regardless of any potential good that might come from lying. A virtue ethicist, however, would focus less on lying in any particular instance and instead consider what a decision to tell a lie or not tell a lie says about one's character.

Hypothetical ethical scenarios can show the weaknesses in each of these systems. None are able to embrace all aspects of morality - each has one or more deficiencies or blind spots. For example, a true utilitarian consequentialist would consider rescuing his own child from an imminent danger to be less important and "consequential" than rescuing two children living a continent away, but if we witnessed a parent making this moral choice (allowing his child to be killed while sending a generous check to Unicef), we would consider that person negligent, or even insane. Deontology can be so mindlessly duty-bound that its followers would make decisions that violate all common sense (not tell a lie even to save a life, for example). A committed virtue ethicist may find himself with competing and conflicting virtues (what if the virtues of kindness and honesty collide, and one must violate one to honor the other?), and it also lacks any particular social focus, emphasizing the individual character above the good of others - in other words, it can tend towards the selfish.

Moral Foundations Theory

Jonathan Haidt, in his fascinating book, The Righteous Mind brings centuries of moral philosophy together with modern empirical research and presents a description of how diverse social groups can differ in their moral frameworks, while still basing them on the same fundamental underlying moral pillars. Moral Foundations Theory was created by a group of social and cultural psychologists (including Jonathan Haidt) to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes. In brief, the theory proposes that several innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world. Moral Foundations Theory is supported by extensive experimental results as well as having synthesized moral philosophies from Kant, Hume, and Bentham through Peter Singer and a lot of international anthropological studies of both modern and primitive societies (2nd and 3rd world peoples have unfortunately been left out of moral philosophy studies until just the last 20 years or so).

The foundations are:

  1. Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, compassion, gentleness, and nurturance.
  2. Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, fairness, proportionality, and autonomy.
  3. Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.
  4. Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one."
  5. Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions and institutions.
  6. Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination, as well as by the near universal tendency to find objects of worship. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants, and elevated by discipline, self-sacrifice, and a "pure" lifestyle (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
This theory accounts for the enormous differences in moral outlook between liberal, conservatives, and libertarians. Liberals tend to use the Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating foundations for their judgements of right and wrong, and very little of the others. Conservatives employ those two pillars in equal measures with the loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, liberty/oppression, and sanctity/degradation pillars. Haidt proposes that the reason that conservatives traditionally have an easier time pulling the emotional heart strings of the voters is that they appeal to a wider spectrum of these moral "tastes" (the author himself is a committed liberal). Of course, Libertarians emphasize the liberty/oppression dimension more than either liberals and conservatives. As an example of how flexibly these foundations can be deployed, each group utilizes liberty/oppression differently: Liberals see capitalists as oppressors of the weak and poor, which interacts with the care/harm pillar. Conservatives see foreign countries and ideologies (Communism, Socialism) as oppressive and threaten our national authority and institutions. Libertarians see our own government as oppressing its citizens, subverting their autonomy and individuality. Anyhow, because these groups differ in their fundamental moral premises, they end up talking past each other, each thinking the other has a poorly formed sense of right and wrong. And each group views the others as being morally blind (conservatives think liberals are sacrilegious, subversive, and disrespectful, while liberals see conservatives as selfish, lacking compassion and empathy).

Also from Jonathan Haidt's book:

I was particularly drawn to a new theory of morality Shweder had developed based on his research in Orissa. They found three major clusters of moral themes, which they called the ethics of autonomy, community, and divinity. Each one is based on a different idea about what a person really is.

The ethic of autonomy is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, autonomous individuals with wants, needs, and preferences. People should be free to satisfy these wants, needs, and preferences as they see fit, and so societies develop moral concepts such as rights, liberty, and justice, which allow people to coexist peacefully without interfering too much in each other’s projects. This is the dominant ethic in individualistic societies. You find it in the writings of utilitarians such as John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer (who value justice and rights only to the extent that they increase human welfare), and you find it in the writings of deontologists such as Kant and Kohlberg (who prize justice and rights even in cases where doing so may reduce overall welfare). But as soon as you step outside of Western secular society, you hear people talking in two additional moral languages.

The ethic of community is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, members of larger entities such as families, teams, armies, companies, tribes, and nations. These larger entities are more than the sum of the people who compose them; they are real, they matter, and they must be protected. People have an obligation to play their assigned roles in these entities. Many societies therefore develop moral concepts such as duty, hierarchy, respect, reputation, and patriotism. In such societies, the Western insistence that people should design their own lives and pursue their own goals seems selfish and dangerous — a sure way to weaken the social fabric and destroy the institutions and collective entities upon which everyone depends.

The ethic of divinity is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, temporary vessels within which a divine soul has been implanted. People are not just animals with an extra serving of consciousness; they are children of God and should behave accordingly. The body is a temple, not a playground. Even if it does no harm and violates nobody’s rights when a man has sex with a chicken carcass, he still shouldn’t do it because it degrades him, dishonors his creator, and violates the sacred order of the universe. Many societies therefore develop moral concepts such as sanctity and sin, purity and pollution, elevation and degradation. In such societies, the personal liberty of secular Western nations looks like libertinism, hedonism, and a celebration of humanity’s baser instincts.

So, we have these and many other ways of viewing moral (or ethical) behavior. In this chapter, I'm not attempting to decide which approach is best. I think most people probably adopt a moral system that meshes best with their worldview, their desires, their beliefs, and their values. The question I am most interested in is, "why should we bother choosing among them at all? Why be moral?" A deontologist would argue that the reason to be moral is to please god or conform to society's mores. Consequentialists would argue that you are achieving a non-optimal outcome by behaving immorally, and a virtue ethicist would say that acting immorally shows a lack of character. Someone who subscribes to the Moral Foundation Theory, or a similar evolutionary psychological approach would say that we evolved to be moral. But again, what is wrong with displeasing god, damaging overall well-being, lacking virtue, or rebelling against an evolutionary quirk in our makeup? Are we compelled to have some sort of morality though our individual and group evolution? I think the answer is yes - if we are individually "immoral" (do things we believe to be "wrong") or immoral within our groups, we become personally miserable and unhappy as well as being ostracized, shunned, and condemned by our community. I believe that cultural and genetic evolution have molded us to choose to be moral because it enhances our lives and odds of survival, while developing a reputation for lacking personal morality (cruelty, dishonesty, disloyalty, untrustworthiness) creates a dangerous and unstable environment for the moral rebel, reducing his psychological stability and even his odds of survival.

Objective Morality?

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, host of the podcast, Rationally Speaking, says that moral reasoning is similar to, though not exactly the same as, mathematical reasoning. Both depend on the premises that you start with. For example, if your premise is that the ultimate moral value is to cause more happiness for more people, or to fulfill people's preferences, as opposed to causing more unhappiness, then Utilitarianism is probably going to seem very reasonable to you. If, on the other hand, your basic value is to respect individual rights and autonomy above everything else, then Objectivism is going to suit you. If your value is to obey the commandments in the bible, or the laws of the land, or otherwise follow what you conceive of as a god's instructions, then you would probably adopt Deontology for your moral framework. If you value character development and cultivation of personal excellence, then you would likely prefer Virtue Ethics above the other moral philosophies. If the scope of your moral concern is your immediate or extended family or a close-knit group, then you may reason that you should treat those around you well, and let others fend for themselves. The reason there is no one, single "best" moral philosophy is because we all start with different premises, and those premises are based on our value systems. There is no logical proof that one value system is superior to another. Values are givens - they are the axioms and premises of morality. Sometimes we choose our values, but frequently we simply have them, just as we have tastes and preferences for different music or food - they precede and trump any sort of logical justification.

Ethics is really, then, a form of applied logic. You can start with different premises to come up with completely self-consistent, coherent, moral frameworks, none of which is superior to the other but different solutions to the moral problem, and none of them refutable on purely theoretical grounds.

Regarding "objective morality", the existence of moral standards independent of humans and their moral preferences as opposed to purely relativistic morality - I reject that kind of dichotomy. I reject it for the same reasons that I would reject an argument in favor of a one, "true" geometry. The choice of a geometry or of moral system all depends on the starting premises. Euclidan, Hyberbolic, Riemann, and other geometry systems are all "true", but each starts with different axioms. The same idea applies to moral systems. They are "true" in the sense that they each follow logically from their founding premises - given their starting points, they are internally consistent, coherent, and well-defined. In ethics and morality, there probably is no fundamental value or axiom that is clearly superior to the others. There certainly are, and have been, unworkable, low quality premises, such as "murder and mayhem is a core value", or "exterminating all undesirable people is virtuous". There are, and have been, some people and nations that held these values. But values such as these are incapable of serving as the foundation of a coherent, sustainable moral system. The value that works for you today can be turned against you tomorrow (you may find yourself to be an "undesirable"). Core values such as these lead to degenerate moral systems, full of contradictions, are self-limiting, and which cannot allow the people who practice them to even survive for the long term (Nazism and some of the vicious and bloodthirsty regimes in Africa, for example). Likewise, one could (and have done so) devise geometric axioms that are mathematical dead ends incapable of producing a useful geometry.

What is really meant by the argument for moral relativism? I don't think its proponents are in favor of "anything goes" or "if it feels good do it". They are saying, I think, that moral systems depend on culture and history. I would agree. They also agree on human nature. Since we are all humans, and we all experience the limitations of our human natures and bodies, many of those underlying features of our human natures are the same. We all want to survive, even to prosper. We want our families and communities to prosper, as well. We want safety, security, respect, love, and all the rest. Sometimes we want to survive and prosper at the expense of others. Most moral systems implement rules that make it possible to achieve these common goals. But. we obviously see many different moral systems. That probably is a reflection in our different cultures, histories, and different weightings of the various components of our shared human natures (some systems value individual freedom, some family unity, some community, etc). So, yes, moral systems are relative, but bounded - they are not relative without limits.

Examples of fundamental values that serve as the basis for different moral frameworks are described by Jonathan Haidt (these are outlined in more detail in a previous section). His moral spectrum included these moral "pillars" (axioms):

  1. Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.
  2. Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions
  3. Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.
  4. Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. (He has also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
  5. Authority/subversion for tradition, elders, and respect for legitimate authority.
  6. Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. (He has also referred to this as Purity.)
Likewise, individuals may put their highest value on individual autonomy, group or cultural prosperity, or divinity and sanctity of some object of worship. Each set of values would lead those who hold them to arrive at different "solutions" to ethical problems. People in different cultures, and even people from different sub-groups within a culture, will adopt some combination of moral premises, and will be attracted to moral frameworks that supports their value systems. Some people might value individual rights, others would put a premium on the health of the family or community or nation, others on the respect for the bible, the constitution, the legal system, traditional ways, or some set of established rules. Others might put the ultimate value on the environment, or on "Gaia", or on a god or gods, or on providing support for the weak and disadvantaged. Moral systems will follow from those premises.

The world of morality can be split roughly into two camps: Moral realism and moral antirealism. Moral realists believe that objective morals do exist. For example, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of our Nature) has argued that the game theoretic advantages of ethical behavior support the idea that morality is "out there" in a certain sense (as part of the evolutionary fitness landscape). In other words, computer programs and stylized cooperative "public goods" games that simulate human social interactions can demonstrate that incorporating certain sets of moral rules generates optimal outcomes both for the individual and the communities of which they are a part, while other rules are destructive to both. Obviously the antirealists do not subscribe to an externally existent morality. Antirealists are divided into Emotivists who believe that talk of morals is no more than emotional talk, expression of preferences, whether we do or do not like something, whether something pleases us or disgusts us. Noncognitivists would say that talk about truth within morality is a type of Category Error. Examples of Category Errors would be arguing about what kind of cheese the moon is made of, or whether ducks are conservative or liberal, or how the color blue smells. Moral values do not lend themselves to having a "truth value" any more than ducks have a political affiliation. According to noncognitivists (and I consider myself among them) moral systems don't have a truth value, either - they are only instrumental in helping us achieve outcomes that are consistent with our moral values. In other words, moral rules are not, by themselves "good", but they are good for something.

One could argue that there are objective moral truths, but that might be playing a little fast and loose with the word, "objective". I will try to avoid drifting into the sin of postmodernist redefinition of words to suit my purposes, at the same time trying to clarify the word so as to (hopefully) remove some ambiguity. Morality exists between humans in a culture, and in the relationship an individual has with himself (in the form of self respect, purity of the body, purity of thought and action, cultivation of the virtues, etc). Biology and Anthropology teach us that because all humans are the same kind of animal, we can assume that the same things nourish us and other things harm us. We all have the same basic needs and all avoid the same basic set of dangers. For the most part, the same kinds of things give us pleasure (nourishment vs starvation, comfort vs. torture, air vs. suffocation, hydration vs. desiccation, acceptance vs. rejection, success vs. failure, etc). With some variations across cultures, the same glues binds us together in a society. These are objective facts that can't really be disputed. They are scientific facts that have to do with the kind of animal that we are.

If a person values the continuity and strength of the culture to which he belongs, and if he values his own prosperity and survival, then it is objectively true that certain behaviors and moral codes will apply. If one does not value the community, or himself, and wants to engage in self-destruction, excommunication, and exile from his community as a sociopath, then that person, of course, is free to reject all morality and to walk away from any sort of moral constraint - to walk into the wilderness and perish. To argue about some values, though, is really borderline ridiculous and hardly worth considering. To say you do not value human life, or prosperity, or making those who you live with happy rather than miserable, or having a good character and reputation, it is arguable that you are objectively wrong to want to be a liar, cheat, traitor, and outcast. To want to cause suffering and to bring destruction on your community, would indicate (and Aristotle and his contemporaries would agree with this), you are objectively wrong. You are as wrong as a squirrel who refuses to collect nuts for the winter, or the lion that refuses to hunt. You are sick, you are socially sick and individually sick - you have a moral disease; you are morally insane.

To have a fatally flawed moral value is analogous to having a fatally flawed survival instinct. For example, it would be "wrong" to insist on walking around with a compound leg fracture. To pedantically argue, "what if you want the bone to protrude further and to increase the infection and bleeding?" is not worth considering. You would be sick and insane and on the road to personal extinction to do that. To argue that the correct course of action depends on your values, is to engage in a silly conversation. To quote Steven Novella,

"To be a critical thinker is to be comfortable with uncertainty and with the limits of human knowledge and to be aware of the many flaws and limitations of human intelligence — and, therefore, to be flexible in the face of new ideas or information, but to not be afraid to acknowledge that some ideas are objectively better than others."
In other words, it is a bad idea to value making a compound fracture worse, just as it is a bad idea to ruin your life through choice of self-destructive morals. Given the reality of the kind of biological animal that we are, when we are injured (either physically or morally), our goal should objectively be to get better rather than to commit physical or spiritual suicide by continuing in error. Anyone who would argue otherwise, that it is a matter of perspective and personal preference, is a person who is on their way to individual annihilation, which would (for them) render the moral question moot. Some "incorrect" moral choices are poor answers to the question "how should we live our lives" (which was the original question asked by the early western Ethical philosophers). It would be wrong to walk on a compound fracture, and it would be wrong to be a murderer, thief, traitor, deceiver, or tyrant, to cultivate the anti-virtues of lying, stealing, betrayal, and murder.

Which Moral Framework to Use?

Utilitarianism is sort of an objective "moral algebra". You can use it to generate an algorithm for deciding on the right action in various situations. It, probably more than any other moral system, is responsible for ushering in the "Rights Revolution", as Steven Pinker calls it in The Better Angels of our Nature. This objective analysis which had its roots in the 18th century Enlightenment forces us to see that the rights of others unrelated to ourselves, of different races and genders, are just as important as our own rights. However, its extreme objectivity makes it sometimes a little "heartless" (like its conclusion that you should harvest organs from a healthy person to save several sick people, or push the fat man onto the tracks in the trolley car scenario). I think it is interesting that many believe that Jeremy Bentham (one of its founders) suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, which we know causes people to have a disconnect with the feelings of others and to treat them sort of like objects. Sometimes I think utilitarianism objectifies people (by coldly quantifying their happiness), allowing you to "score" their well-being and total it up like one would during a warehouse inventory. No surprise that Mr. Spock on Star Trek was a utilitarian ("The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few").

Unfortunately, human experience is colored with all sorts of fuzzy shades of gray and subtle nuances that such an algorithm doesn't always fit. For Utilitarianism, as with all the moral systems, one can devise hypothetical situations that make them underperform. But in general, I think the choice of utilitarianism is a great process to apply to most situations just to see how they fare. Probably in the vast majority of cases, it succeeds in pointing us to the "right" action.

We all know the problems with deontology - it is basically a mindless and dogged following of rules (except, maybe for a deontology like Kant's Categorical Imperative). But certainly the Ten commandments is such an example of empty-headed rule-following (the first four of which define how to worship god correctly). And virtue ethics has the problems of (1) sometimes being pretty selfish, (2) unclear goals (what is "well being", sometimes called eudaimonia). It can range from wild self indulgence to gentle and wise philosophical living, and (3) it can contradict itself - virtues that may appear compatible can occasionally lead you to an action that violates one or the other.

Morality/Ethics is not a "solved" problem - people continue to debate it. One way of thinking about it is like this:

There is a valid form of logical reasoning called “denying the consequent” (aka “modus tollens”) which can be used to show that moral problems do not, in general, have easy, pat answers that you can just look up in your moral handbook:
If P, then Q.
Not Q.
Therefore, Not P.
Substituting for P and Q:
If "there is a clear, best, moral framework", then "we would not    still be debating it".
But it is not true that "we are not still debating it", even after    2500 years.
Therefore it is not true that "there is a clear, best, moral    framework"
In other words, we will probably not see a convergence in moral outlook in our lifetimes! I expect the same (or similar) debates will still be going on long after we all are dead.

I usually consider all of these moral frameworks to be "tools" in my moral toolbox. For challenging moral situations, I intuitively run through all of them to see which helps me generate an action that "seems" (I know, very subjective) to be the right one. And there is the almost subconscious "gut check" to test how a possible action compares against my intuition. No matter how a moral framework crunches through the situation, one can't really follow through with an objectionable result that offends our innate sense of right and wrong.

Rigid moral frameworks can and do occasionally result in what appear to be absurd conclusions. Regardless of what the moral code requires, we rebel at it and will probably refuse to follow that rule. Instead we will continue looking until we can justify an action that is in rough agreement with our intuitions. James Ladyman, author of Understanding Philosophy of Science, said this about the conflicts that can arise between an ethical system and our intuitive beliefs about right and wrong.

...it is clear that, as in other areas of philosophy, we need to reach what is known as a ‘reflective equilibrium’ between our pre-philosophical beliefs and the results of philosophical inquiry. Consider the following analogy; in ethics we inquire into questions about the nature of the good and the general principles that will guide us in trying to resolve controversial moral issues, such as abortion and euthanasia. However, ethicists would reject any ethical theory that implied that the recreational torturing of human beings was morally acceptable, no matter how plausible the arguments for it seemed. In ethics we demand that accounts of the good do not conflict with our most fundamental moral beliefs, although we will allow them to force us to revise some of our less central moral views.
In other words, even a moral system that we believes works can recommend that we do something our intuition rebels at. We may want to allow Dexter (the TV serial killer who only murders other killers) to continue killing for utilitarian reasons. Or we may tell a murderer where his next victim lives to avoid lying, for deontological reasons. Or we may want to kill an unhappy person, which the virtue of charity would encourage, but another virtue of justice would forbid. We almost have no choice but to do a reality check using reflective equilibrium to test if we believe (intuitively) the act that our moral system advises us to do.

My Own Moral Framework

I subscribe to a combination of several moral frameworks - a cafeteria approach - because it doesn't appear that any one moral philosophy can effectively address all the situations in my life. I am not concerned with god's displeasure or upsetting any other giver of moral laws, but I do find that I am comfortable conforming to rules of conduct when they are not too onerous (I would not dance on the table at a restaurant, or start shouting in a crowded elevator). These are society's rules, and I try to follow them because it would be uncomfortable for me and for everyone if I didn't. So, I confess I am a rule follower some of the time, because it is convenient, requires little effort, and helps smooth the way when interacting with others. Plus, due to my upbringing, I would personally feel uncomfortable taking my shirt off at work, or giving a stranger a backrub on the street. There is nothing inherently wrong with these actions, but they conflict with conventions I have accepted and choose not to fight.

I don't believe there is any evidence of a universal moral code, and plenty of evidence against such a thing. Kant's categorical imperative (a deontological rule), phrased in two ways in the previous chapter of this blog, are guidelines that I try to integrate into my choices. I value and respect the virtues of courage, honesty, cool-headedness, compassion, generosity, humor, kindness, resourcefulness, and many others. I wish I could integrate more of them into my habits (and as Aristotle pointed out, virtues must be practiced as you would any other skill). And, like most people, I want to cause more good than harm (a Consequentialist goal). So, I have assimilated content from several of the major Ethical frameworks, which is probably not unusual.

When thinking about how I would respond to hypothetical situations, I frequently turn to Virtue Ethics and find myself evaluating my potential responses in terms of how they reflect on my character, or others' characters, when performing them. I value virtuous thinking and behavior in myself and others, striving towards excellence, achievement, and effort. I am pleased when I see myself living up to this standard, and disappointed when I fall short. Regarding the "six foundations" described by Haidt, I see evidence of all of them in my makeup, but would tend towards more towards the liberal end of that spectrum, especially with regard to the Authority/Sanctity pillars, though I do hold sacred the gift of life that we have and consider it shameful to waste and degrade ourselves and the life we have the good fortune to be living. And I am probably more individualistic than group focused.

It's not success in life that is the measure, but the process one goes through in the drive towards success, and how a person deals with failure, their resilience. My own answer to the question of morality is Aristotelian or Epicurean - whatever increases my flourishing, and by extension I "will" (wish) that everyone adopt this same value (a la Kant). For each of us, our flourishing, our thriving, can assume different aspects, because they vary from person to person, and from situation to situation. Whatever makes your life a "happy" life in the Eudaimon sense - the ancient Greek sense of being happy, autonomous, fulfilled, of our lives having been a "good project", of living life well, that we use our limited time and resources in ways that are productive, purposeful, important (to us), and satisfying, doing interesting, creative, relevant and helpful work for ourselves and others, of having friends and being a good friend.

Aristotle described the eudaimon life life is one of “virtuous activity in accordance with reason”, and Epicurus described it similarly - having pleasurable experiences, good friends, and a meaningful, philosophical life. For Epicurus, "pleasure" was not purely self-indulgent (though I think that, technically, he is a hedonist), rather it involved living modestly, gaining knowledge of how the world works, and learning the limits of one's desires. A life spent in this way would lead one to attain a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and freedom from fear. He said, "It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly. And it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life." This is not entirely dissimilar to the Buddhist Eight-fold path:

  • Right view: looking at life, nature, and the world as they really are
  • Right intention(or right thought): aspiring to move away from that which is wrong and immoral, or as Kant would say, having a "good will"
  • Right speech: abstaining from lying, divisive or abusive speech, and from idle chatter and destructive gossip
  • Right action: morally upright in one's activities, not acting in ways that would be corrupt or bring harm to oneself or to others
  • Right livelihood: not to engage in occupations which, either directly or indirectly, result in harm for other living beings
  • Right effort: making a sustained effort to abandon wrong and harmful thoughts, words, and deeds
  • Right mindfulness: be mindful and deliberate, making sure not to act or speak due to inattention, fickleness, or forgetfulness
  • Right concentration: basically, practicing meditation
  • Right knowledge: seeing things as they really are by direct experience, not as they appear to be, nor as the practitioner wants them to be, but as they truly are
I am not a Buddhist, but I do like their guide to virtuous living. I think that if more people followed these very practical and obvious guidelines, our lives would be much more harmonious.

So far I have described my own personal ethic - how I live my own life. But regarding how I live with others in society, I subscribe to a general form of utilitarianism, meaning we should do things that maximize the well-being (eudaimonia) of the largest number of individuals. Of course, I realize that one can come up with degenerate cases where the maximization of happiness for the majority causes suffering for a few. Life is tough - this is going to happen sometimes. Not everyone can be made happy, and sometimes we will all be the cause of some unhappiness. In general I would try to avoid being the principal agent of harm, as this would would contradict Kant's imperative, and it would not make for a virtuous life.

Regardless of my choices, or all of our choices for our own moral codes, I agree with Haidt in thinking we have laid on a veneer of ad hoc rationality on moral issues which hides a much deeper motivation - we humans want to be moral; we want to do the "right" thing, whatever we conceive that to be. I think it is our nature, it's in our genes and culture, it's in how we evolved in tribes and communities. I would further say that only sociopaths truly don't care about being "good" (in fact, that is almost a circular statement, because lack of caring is a primary part of the definition of sociopathy). Humans are hardwired to be good, or to value goodness in others, and to hate evil (i.e., people who cause harm, are unfair, treacherous, oppressive, subversive, and disrespectful). Even other animals demonstrate what could most parsimoniously be interpreted as moral (or possibly "pre-moral") behaviors. Franz de Waal, an expert primatologist, has described in books like Good Natured, and others, that gorillas, elephants, chimpanzees, dogs, and many other intelligent mammals show the basics of what, in humans, evolved into a moral code. They are either born with them, learn them, or are born with the ability to learn them. They care for their injured, show generosity, have patience, experience grief at the death of kin and friends, rejoice by themselves or with friends, can be kind, be protective and nurturing, work on their reputations, appreciate the reputations of others, recognize injustice, and become upset by unfair situations.

So, I think that human hominids, like their ape cousins are implicitly moral, or have a moral instinct. Because of our higher intelligence, language, and complex societies, we have created sophisticated laws, customs, taboos, and rituals to teach and enforce common moral codes. Complex societies motivate the creation of complex moral systems - they are the glue that hold the society together. Philosophies have sprung up to rationalize and explain the morality, but the pre-logical, innate moral sense came first. As in religion, (to paraphrase Hume) reason is the slave of passion. The desire for goodness and to be recognized as being good (however we choose to define it) drives the rational systems that explain it. Without the underlying desire, there would be no motivation for doing good or for doing evil. Again Hume: "It is not against reason that I should prefer the destruction of half the world to the pricking of my little finger." It is the desire for the good that drives good action. Again, "good" is not an absolute term, but interpreted by each individual.

So, as individuals, we must decide on our values and priorities - what do we want? As Kant defined it, do we want to have a "good will", the desire to do good and to wish well to others? If so, then we will be choose to be ethical and moral, according to whatever model of goodness we believe in. If we do not (and I think that very few people fully reject this in their lives, though some do) then there is no particular need to choose a moral path. However, if one chooses to live with other people, he will quickly find that is impossible to succeed without an ethical framework that conforms in most important respects with that of his community, even in a community of outlaws and outcasts. If one's desire is to be part of any community, then one must have a moral code consistent with the mores and standards of that community. Any other path would yield only discouragement and failure.

Monday, April 8, 2013

A religious skeptic's view of the world

Not only am I a non-theist (or atheist) but can also characterize myself as a Realist, also known as a Philosophical Realist. I believe that "truth" is measured by the mind's correspondence to reality, to the "state of affairs" in the world. I am also a skeptic (in the modern sense). The pre-modern definition of philosophical skepticism included doubt about the existence of external reality and our ability to really know anything (Descartes was of this school), and that no proposition could be shown to be any more likely than any other. But that is not generally what modern skepticism is about, nor is it what I am about. The Greek root of "skeptic" is to seek, or to examine, and that is exactly what skepticism in the modern sense is - an inquiry. Modern skeptics accept that they don't have certain knowledge, but they look for the best, most reliable knowledge they can find. Lack of complete certainty doesn't imply that we can't have greater degrees of confidence in some proposals than others. As Steven Novella wrote,
To be a critical thinker is to be comfortable with uncertainty and with the limits of human knowledge; to be aware of the many flaws and limitations of human intelligence, to be flexible in the face of new ideas or information, but to not be afraid to acknowledge that some ideas are objectively better than others.
We acknowledge that we can't know things for sure, in the sense of having 100% certainty, but we can increase our confidence through evidence and through reasoning. So, keeping that in mind, I accept that the world is pretty much like our senses, and our science shows it to be. To anyone who would make a counter-claim, I ask that they give me good reason to accept their alternative. Barring such evidence, I see no reason to seriously entertain an alternative.

I am also a Philosophical Naturalist - I think that the observable universe is all there is, and is all that we need to concern ourselves with. Other metaphysics (Idealism, Subjectivism, Relativism, Solipsism, Dualism, Monism, etc.) so blatantly contradict common experience or are so obscure and ad-hoc that I can't accept them. The only philosophical choice which the evidence of our experience supports with every action we take is Realism. When we look both ways when we cross the street it is because at our core, we are all realists.

Epistemology

Regarding how we come to know the world and ourselves (my epistemology), everything we know comes from outside through our senses and inside from our minds (which is really just our minds sensing activity in other parts of our minds). There is no special revelation from supernatural entities, or miracles performed by them to get things done in the world. The real world exists without their help, and although we may be constrained in our ability to experience it by our limited senses and minds, it is out there, and we are in it. It is widely held that the most powerful support for Realism is the "no-miracles argument", according to which the success of science and realism would be miraculous if scientific theories were not at least approximately true descriptions of the world.

The nature of reality

To those who say we can't experience "ultimate reality", I question if this is even a meaningful concept (what is it other than the "actual reality" we find ourselves in?). If we can't experience it, what indication is there that it is even a real thing? I say we are living in "ultimate reality" - this is it. This is the only reality for which there is any evidence. Every one of our cells is constrained to operate in the 4 dimensional space-time web which constitutes reality. In fact, we can't escape it - where else would we go? Proponents of the idea of an unreachable "ultimate reality" have become enthralled by the invigorating possibility that something lies beyond our mundane world. But simply desiring and being able to conceive of such a thing in no way causes it to exist, any more than Anshelm's belief that there is a perfect god means that such a being really does exist. The desire to "transcend" and belief in a transcendent reality probably appeal to our human natures more than they refer to an actual "other" existence. As Karen Armstrong said,

The word, transcendence, means that which goes beyond our normal experience. Throughout human history, men and women have experienced a hidden sacred dimension of life which is beyond their normal thoughts, ideas, and experiences. We seek ecstasy. We seek to go beyond ourselves and experience this other, this dimension of "something else". And if we don't find it in religion, we look for it in other activities - in art, in sport, in sex, in drugs even (mistakenly). This is the way we are constituted. We are, as human beings, able to have experiences and to conceive of ideas that go beyond what we can grasp. This is part of the human condition.
What we see and know of the universe may only be an approximation of some more high-resolution view of reality, but every new scientific observation brings us closer to understanding it, and allows us to see deeper and farther into it. That journey towards greater understanding has not come from religion or mythology, but from controlled observation, experiment, and theory. If there is anything else that is knowable, it will probably come about as a direct result of the continued investigations of mathematics, the sciences, engineering, exploration, and creation (both scientific and artistic). Already science has shown us a universe trillions of times larger and infinitely more intricate than anything conceived of by the religions and myths of pre-scientific societies.

Do things exist which aren't material - yes, of course. It really depends on what we mean by the word, "exist", which is probably too weak and non-specific a word to encompass what is we refer to when we say it. Frequently "existence" is applied both to material objects and to non-material entities: processes, flows, relationships, behaviors, evolution, and other dynamic aspects of complex (i.e., more than one object involved) systems. Obviously, emotions and feelings "exist". We humans (and probably other animals) clearly have inner lives. Love, hate, loyalty, treachery, and all the other human emotions "exist", using a loose definition of the word. They exist more in the sense of how relationships or processes exist. There are no emotional "atoms" that can be weighed and measured. But it is probable (neuroscience and evolutionary biology are very close to showing this) that the human emotions that give us reasons to keep on living are outgrowths of very physical processes in the brain. That doesn't make them any less important, just as knowing how a rainbow, opera, flower, or sonnet works doesn't make them any less beautiful. To those who would say, "if you can accept that love and loyalty exist though you can't hold them in your hand, then why can you not also accept god?". The answer is that unlike love and loyalty, there is no evidence of a god, no reason to believe in a god, any more than there is a reason to believe in the infinity of other concepts that can be thought of which also don't exist. Knowing that a few immaterial "things" exist (emotion, change, the future, the past) is no argument for thinking every immaterial thing exists. Each requires its own rationale and reason for deserving our belief. One cannot conclude that all immaterial things exist because some immaterial things exist!

Our mental model of the world

Material objects (including ourselves) are in the world. Those objects interact - they have relationships to each other and influence each other. Processes and phenomena occur, objects change internally and with respect to each other through time. Because of our cognitive apparatus, we create models of both the objects of the world, their relationships, and how both of these evolve through time. We see the universe work as it does, and build intricate mathematical and logical systems that correspond to the world.

"Embodied mind" theories hold that mathematical and logical thought is a natural outgrowth of the human cognitive apparatus which finds itself in our physical universe. For example, the abstract concept of number springs from the experience of living in a world where there are discrete objects that can be counted. I think it is quite probable (though no means certain) that if the universe did not have this feature (separate, countable objects), that the theory of number would probably not have come about. Although it is not the dominant theory, I think that logical systems are a result of the human propensity to create mental models of their experiences. We construct, but do not discover, mathematics. Embodied mind theorists explain the effectiveness of mathematics by arguing that mathematics was constructed by the brain in order to be effective in this universe. It is part of our natural "model making" cognitive functioning. With this view, the physical universe can thus be seen as the ultimate foundation of mathematics: it guided the evolution of the brain and later determined which questions this brain would find worthy of investigation. It is possible that because Mathematics is an enterprise the purposes of which is to describe and manipulate many types of logically consistent systems, and because our world is one such system, it should be no surprise that there are certain branches of mathematics that can describe (and predict and explain) phenomena in our world. Is our world logically consistent? Of course - if it were not, it would implode in a giant flash of improbability!

Seriously, when our theories contradict each other (such as is the case with the wave/particle theory of light) it is an invitation to further research, not a threat to reality. These apparent internal contradictions are more likely to indicate our inadequate or incomplete physical models rather than an actual incompatibility of reality with itself. Case in point - when James Faraday saw electric current moving a compass needle at right angles to the current, he didn't question the sanity of the universe, but concluded (correctly) that there were new laws yet to be discovered.

But we also have within mathematics many concepts that do not correspond to any real things in our world. In this view, the domain of concepts which mathematics can address includes and goes beyond the world we find ourselves in.

Emergence and the Laws of Nature

Regarding "laws of nature", I group them together with mathematical and logical objects. The "laws of nature" do not cause the universe to be as it is. The universe is already as it is, and the laws are our human attempt to organize these experiences in ways that we can describe them, explain them, and predict them. An apple doesn't fall from the tree because Newton came up with the formulas for gravitational attraction, the formulas describe (and predict) how objects fall, and how they will fall in the future.

I am not a reductionist, in the sense that I don't think all phenomena and processes can ultimately be reduced to their lowest primitive elements (physical laws). The ultimate in reductionism would be to claim that quantum theory should eventually be able to explain not only how subatomic particles behave, but how atoms and molecules form, how cells come into being, now animals work, and finally how humans and human societies work. No, I am an "emergentist". I think new properties and behaviors spontaneously emerge as complexity increases. The characteristics of water (its wetness, its freezing point, boiling point, and chemical properties) spontaneously emerge as water molecules form from hydrogen and oxygen. We cannot "average" the characteristics of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom to predicts what their chemical combination (H2O) will be like. The properties of water emerge as water (a more complex thing) is built from oxygen and hydrogen (less complex things). As molecules form, organic compounds are created, life emerges, intelligence evolves, and civilizations are born and die, new properties and behaviors spring into existence with each change in structure and complexity. The ultimate in complex properties - consciousness, intelligence, and human culture, exist in ourselves and our civilizations. Some physicists think that the lowest level of complexity - the subatomic particles themselves - may also be emergent entities that are born from the interaction of fields that pervade space (as discussed in Every Thing Must Go, by James Ladyman).